WASHINGTON -- Called to a Florida school that could not cope, police led the disorderly student away in handcuffs, all 40 pounds of her 5-year-old self. In a Solomonic compromise, schools in Broward County, Fla., banned running at recess. Long Beach, N.J., removed signs warning swimmers about riptides, although the oblivious tides continued. The warning label on a five-inch fishing lure with a three-pronged hook says, "Harmful if swallowed"; the label on a letter opener says, "Safety goggle recommended."
No official at the Florida school would put a restraining arm around the misbehaving child lest he or she be sued, as a young member of Teach for America was, for $20 million (the school settled for $90,000), because the teacher put a hand on the back of a turbulent seventh-grader to direct him to leave the classroom. Another teacher's career was ruined by accusations arising from her having positioned a child's fingers on a flute. A 2004 survey reported that 78 percent of middle and high school teachers have been subjected to legal threats from students bristling with rights. Students, sensing the anxiety that seizes schools when law intrudes into incidental relations, challenge teachers' authority.
Someone hurt while running at recess might sue the school district for inadequate supervision of the runner, as Broward Country knows: It settled 189 playground lawsuits in five years. In Indiana, a boy did what boys do: He went down a slide head first -- and broke his femur. The school district was sued for inadequate supervision. Because of fears of such liabilities, all over America playgrounds have been stripped of the equipment that made them fun. So now in front of televisions and computer terminals sit millions of obese children, casualties of what attorney and author Philip Howard calls "a bubble wrap approach to child rearing" produced by the "cult of safety." Long Beach removed the warning signs because it is safer to say nothing: Reckless swimmers injured by the tides might sue, claiming that the signs were not sufficiently large or shrill or numerous, or something. Only a public outcry got the signs restored.
Defensive, and ludicrous, warning labels multiply because aggressiveness proliferates. Lawsuits express the theory that anyone should be able to sue to assert that someone is culpable for even an idiotic action by the plaintiff, such as swallowing a fishing lure.